This is not familiar territory for the Vernon Hills football team.
The 4-4 Cougars will be playing with their feet to the fire tonight when they host Wauconda. They need a win in order to have even an outside shot at the playoffs.
If Vernon Hills defeats Wauconda, qualifying for the playoffs with five wins and enough points is a possibility. And that's a sharp contrast from the usual at Vernon Hills, which is the two-time defending North Suburban Prairie Division champion.
Since branching off from Libertyville High School slightly more than a decade ago, the Cougars have been to the playoffs in nine of 10 seasons that they've fielded full squads (including seniors).
And the year they didn't make it might have been nothing more than a curse of the scheduling gods.
"That year, we finished 3-6 but our first four games were against teams that all made it to the quarterfinals or better, including Libertyville which won state," Vernon Hills coach Tony Monken. "So even that wasn't really (a bad miss).
"We've been able to put together some really good teams over the years. And we feel we are playing better now. "
The Cougars lost four of five games, including three straight, between Weeks 2 and 6. The losses were to St. Francis, Antioch, Lakes and Grant.
The latter three teams could finish as tri-champions of the North Suburban Prairie Division.
"Sometimes you get dealt a hand you don't expect," Monken said. "But we just have to have fun, relax and play the way we know we can. We need to get that fifth win and see what happens. If things go right and teams that should lose do lose, we'll be in the playoffs."
(Glas) half full: Antioch was hoping to run the table this season and put together its second undefeated regular season since 2008.
But Grant shattered that dream last week by handing Antioch a 22-14 loss. The Sequoits, who turned the ball over five times in the Grant game, are now 7-1 heading into tonight's regular season finale against North Chicago.
"You kind of felt like you had to talk the guys off the ledge after the (Grant) game," said Antioch coach Brian Glashagel, known as "Coach Glas" to his players. "They were pretty upset, pretty solemn.
"But as coaches, we're trying to see the good in (the loss). You know, our guys were feeling pretty good about themselves, pretty invincible before the Grant game, and you can't have too much of that or else you start losing focus.
"I told them that if losing a game during the regular season helps us in the playoffs, if it helps us be a more focused playoff team, then I'll say thank you to Grant and thank God a loss happened then and not in the playoffs."
(Almost) Winning formula: When updates of Wauconda's game against Stevenson were posted online last week, there were probably plenty of double-takes.
The Bulldogs were up on Stevenson 12-0 midway through the fourth quarter. But Stevenson scored 2 touchdowns over a three-minute span to escape with a 13-12 victory.
Still, it was an impressive showing for the 2-6 Bulldogs. So just how did they almost knock off the defending North Suburban Lake Division champs?
Wauconda coach Dave Mills gives big-time credit to the offensive line, which includes Christian Huff, Will Danner, Mike Augustine, Jack Weber, Anthony Mowry and David Lowe.
"We were able to run a lot of clock because we established our run game probably better than we have all season," Mills said. "That was the first game we had our five starters in the game at the same time."
Short but stout: It's been a quick climb up for Lakes.
Just six years ago, the Eagles were playing their first season of varsity football with seniors. Lakes had just split from sister school Antioch and was ready to fly on its own.
The Eagles wound up soaring that year. They made the playoffs and finished with a 6-4 record. Now, Lakes is about to earn its fourth playoff berth. That's four playoff appearances in six years.
With a win tonight over Round Lake, the 6-2 Eagles, led by the relentless running of Direll Clark and Ashton Norwood, are also in position to claim no worse than a share of the North Suburban Prairie Division title. It would be the first division title in program history.
The Eagles have finished second twice.
"Sometimes you don't really get the chance to step back and take it all in, but what we've been able to do in such a short amount of time has really been amazing," Lakes coach Luke Mertens said.